Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Grave Yard
Dillon is a new author to me, whose books have been sitting in my TBR pile for a while now, so the Tuesday Night Blogger’s theme of academic mysteries gave me the perfect excuse to give one of them a try, with a murder set in an Irish university college and a professor as an amateur sleuth. Since my copy of Death in the Quadrangle (1956) is a Rue Morgue Press edition, I also had the delights of reading an insightful introduction on the author, written by Dillon’s son, Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin. Dillon wrote across a wide range of genres but it intrigued me that she actually read very little detective fiction and her son suggests this is because she did not see it as “real literature”. It is said that she didn’t like Christie’s work, but that she did read some works by Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and G. K. Chesterton. She was also persuaded to try the work of John Le Carre and she did actually enjoy his The Perfect Spy (1986)– yet she never felt the need to read any more of his work. Ultimately she only published three detective novels, this being the last. The other two are called Death at Crane’s Court (1953) and Sent to His Account (1954). There is also an unfinished detective novel entitled Journey to No End. Cormac adeptly paints a picture of Dillon’s life touching on her difficult relationship with her mother and the traumatic experiences she went through due to various family members being involved in Irish Independence activities, sometimes leading to their deaths. Dillon was married twice and both times to a Professor and whilst writing this book she was actually living on the campus of the University College Cork.
The book begins with Professor Daly, who has been retired for a few years now, after having been the Professor of English Language and Literature at King’s University Dublin and he has been invited back to present the Keyes Lectures at his old college. Even at this early stage readers are reminded of his sleuthing role in Dillon’s first novel, where Dalys helps to solve the murder of the hotel owner whose hotel he is staying at. However, when Daly arrives at the university he is quick to see that things have changed, that the staff in particular are under an unidentifiable strain. He soon tracks down the source of strain and it is the new college President, Professor Bradley whose controlling nature unfolds throughout the story and his arrogance which causes him to bully and manipulate staff members who do not toe the line. It is therefore not surprising when Professor Bradley mentions that the only reason he selected Daly as the speaker was that he wanted him to find out who has been sending him threatening letters, which in particular hint at him wanting to pinch the money that is to be given to the college by a wealthy American benefactor named Leahy. Daly is more than a little suspicious of this task especially considering Bradley says he has destroyed all letters and that he doesn’t want the police involved. But on the other hand Daly likes the idea that in this case he gets the chance to prevent a death and he soon enlists the help of Inspector Mike Kenny from the Civil Guards to help him incognito.
However, Daly’s desire to thwart a murderer’s plans is soon extinguished when one morning Bradley is found dead, poisoned with Nitrobenzene. In the investigation which follows many a motive is uncovered as to why staff members, students, his wife and even Professor Daly himself might have wanted Bradley dead. But will the killer be satisfied with one murder victim or will they strike again?
One of the many things which made this an enjoyable read was the character of Professor Daly himself, who is used as a subtle vehicle for comedy. From the opening of the story we are witness to an amusing duality in Daly. On the one hand there is a sense of self-importance and pomposity to him, a need to be validated and praised for his academic achievements. But on the other hand Daly is not lacking in self-awareness and he even says before getting to the university ‘that it might be good for his rather stout ego to be made to feel small for a few weeks…’ Moreover, despite the crime taking place in a location he knows well and involving people he has known for years, Daly is still able to keep a more objective perspective, which is evidenced in the way he perceives his colleagues’ odd ways:
‘This reflection made him rather sad, because when he had been one of them he had not thought them odd at all. His changed point of view was a measure of the gap that had developed between himself and his old colleagues.’
His attitude to solving crimes also interested me. It is not dwelt on extensively but there is a very telling passage near the beginning of the story. His attraction to crime is ‘the psychology of murderers,’ which leads to him treating the subject like an academic exercise ‘spotting potential murderers… [and] murder[s] when no one else had suspected it.’ However, he does not feel the need to inform the police, instead keeping ‘his own counsel’ and observing ‘while the murderer, though never accused of the crime, was eventually and inevitably destroyed by his own conscience.’ This latter response to murderers troubled me a little, as it just gives off the sense that he enjoyed analysing and watching others’ sufferings. I was slightly reminded of a later Lord Peter Wimsey when it is said that ‘on the rare occasions when… [Daly] had joined in the pursuit [of a killer], he was far too sensitive and intelligent not to have suffered agonising qualms afterwards.’ However, in the book itself he doesn’t seem to be struggling too much, though he prefers to look on the investigation as a mental exercise rather than focus on the grizzly physical aspects. In other respects though, Daly is not similar to Lord Peter Wimsey and his distinguishing traits.
On the whole I really enjoyed this book as I think the comedy of this story is subtle and not overdone. Stereotypes are not bluntly resorted to and in fact academics at the time wondered whether they were being written about in the book, so life like did Dillon create her professor characters. But when an academic stereotype is utilised it is done in an obviously jokey spirit:
‘The surprising thing was that he had been left so long alive. Possibly what had saved … [Bradley] was the fact that professors are not usually practical people. Even if they worked out a dozen methods of murdering Bradley, unless they could hand on the actual task to a research student, nothing would ever be done.’
I also think Dillon has an engaging prose style which makes you want to keep reading and I liked her descriptive touches such as when she describes Bradley after he has told Daly about the threatening letters:
‘Bradley was clearly making a determined effort to retain an appearance of attached amusement. But his smile flashed on and off like a defective electric bulb, and his eyelids twitched with fear.’
Moreover, what adds to the gentle comedy are the moments of poignancy where you see that people haven’t ended up with the lives they wanted and romantic relationships are not simple in this story. Additionally a parallel can be made between one of the relationships in the novel with one of Dillon’s own marriages. Like Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935) there is some nostalgia and female students are mentioned. However, this is contained to one passage in the story, with Dalys informing Kenny that female students are not allowed to live in college and can only have luncheon and not dinner on campus. He goes on to say that female students were ‘let in on sufferance about fifty years ago, and we are watching them ever since for signs of insubordination.’ The contrast between how female students are perceived in Gaudy Night with how they are seen in this story is interesting, as I guess I thought female students would be more welcome by the 1950s, but seemingly not. A final area of humour can be found in Dalys’ relationship with Kenny and it is amusing to read Kenny’s outsider impressions of the university. I think my only criticism of the book is that there is no turning point in the case and therefore the revelation of the killer came across a bit rushed. However, I would still recommend this read and I look forward to reading Dillon’s other two detective novels.